Updated: 4:30 p.m. MDT
DENVER — A federal appeals court ruling Friday that Oklahoma’s ban on gay marriage is unconstitutional spurred celebration among gay rights activists but sparked sharp anger among Republican leaders in a conservative state that prides itself on being the buckle of the nation’s Bible Belt.
The decision by a three-judge panel of the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver upholding a federal judge’s ruling is the latest in a decade-long legal battle. That fight was launched by two couples – Sharon Baldwin and Mary Bishop, and Gay Phillips and Susan Barton – shortly after 76 percent of Oklahoma voters backed the ban in 2004.
Friday’s decision marks the second time the federal appeals court has found the U.S. Constitution protects same-sex marriage, after its June ruling in a Utah case. As in the Utah case, the court put its 2-1 ruling on hold pending an appeal, meaning same-sex couples won’t be allowed to marry in Oklahoma for now.
Baldwin and Bishop, who met while working at the Tulsa World newspaper, have been together 17 years. After an appeals court ruled in 2009 that they lacked standing, they filed an amended complaint listing as the defendant the Tulsa County Court Clerk, since that person issues marriage licenses.
“We could have been married by now in a number of other places,” Baldwin said. “(But) we are Oklahomans. This is where we’re from and we really have no intention of leaving, and we want to be married here.”
Attorneys representing the Tulsa County clerk said Friday they were considering their options. They noted the panel’s dissenting judge argued that changing the definition of marriage should belong to Oklahoma residents, not a federal court.
Conservative leaders in Oklahoma agreed, saying the court overstepped its bounds and waded into an issue that is for states to decide.
“Today’s ruling is another instance of federal courts ignoring the will of the people and trampling on the right of states to govern themselves,” Republican Gov. Mary Fallin said in a statement. “In this case, two judges have acted to overturn a law supported by Oklahomans.”